In early 2002, the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime.

Sketchy claims of weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding, the Iraqi military was a potent adversary and one of the largest armies in the world. The U.S.-led coalition opted to invade from the south and head north toward Bagdad.

As the defender, the Iraqis had the advantage, so U.S. planners sought to divide Iraqi forces with a feint from the north, which meant working with the semi-autonomous Kurds.

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A map of Kurdish-inhabited areas. (CIA)

Long defiant of Saddam’s regime, the Iraqi Kurds were a good choice for a partner force. But the U.S. first had to persuade them — a task made harder by the U.S.’s previous broken promises, especially during the Gulf War in 1991.

To persuade, train, and lead those Kurdish fighters, the U.S. sent in a joint special-operations and intelligence-community force composed of Green Berets and CIA paramilitary officers.

Later reinforced by a few Delta Force operators, British Special Boat Service (SBS) commandos, and some conventional units, Task Force Viking never exceeded 400 commandos, but it led roughly 50,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against some 150,000 Iraqi troops from armored, infantry, and elite Republican Guard divisions.

Their contribution to the swift, 30-day defeat of Saddam, was pivotal.

Earning Trust

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A U.S. soldier on a walkie-talkie with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the outskirts of the Iraqi village of al-Nazimiya, April 3, 2003. (Photo by Joseph Barrak/AFP via Getty Images)

In early 2002, the first CIA officers infiltrated Kurdistan and alerted the Kurds of the U.S. government’s intention to insert commandos.